Digital Exclusion: New research reveals how touchscreen future leaves 5.6 million elderly behind in the UK

Despite the presence of technology in almost all aspects of daily life, there are still barriers that prevent millions of elderly people from accessing it.

Computers, tablets and smartphones streamline the way most of us do things like shopping, banking and, most importantly, keeping in touch with friends and family. But despite the presence of technology in almost all aspects of daily life, there are still barriers that prevent millions of elderly people from accessing it. Recent studies found that 2.8 million people over 75 years old did not use the internet, and only 7% of over 75s made regular video calls.

For care providers to the elderly and those with elderly relatives, it can be tempting to introduce them to mainstream devices. But trying to make iPads or Facebook Portal fit a user group they weren’t specifically designed for can cause frustration and sometimes a complete resistance to the technology. As much as 40% of technology installed in the home is never used, but there is evidence that more than 50% of seniors’ technology issues are to do with usability, which can be solved with better design.

The issue with touchscreens

It is often believed that touchscreens are the way to make technology more accessible. Touchscreens are considered natural and easy to use, with structured menus and clear actions to each button, and are therefore often used in products designed to assist the elderly. So why don’t they always work?

No Isolation’s new research reveals that there are 5.6 million unique people over the age of 65 in the UK who find touchscreens difficult to use due to health and physical barriers.

Dry and thick skin

A common misconception is that touchscreens require warmth from the skin to work, but that is actually not the case. Instead, the skin must be able to conduct electricity, which can be difficult with certain characteristics such as calluses and dry skin. As we age, we lose moisture from our skin and our fingertips become dry. It can therefore be difficult for elderly hands to operate smartphones and tablets not simply because they are unfamiliar, but because it is physically not possible. The figures suggest that 1.98 million people in the UK have ‘leathery fingertips’ that touchscreens do not register.

Other physical barriers

Styluses are commonly proposed to address this, but interactions such as rotate and zoom require multiple touches and are not possible to simulate with a stylus. Medical conditions such as multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s and arthritis can also make them awkward and difficult to use. The gestures themselves can also be difficult for people with reduced muscle function in their hands or arms. The precise movements needed for styluses, touchscreens, and even computer mice and touchpads, can be problematic for many older adults.

Cognitive decline

In the UK, 2.95 million people over 65 have subjective cognitive decline, another direct barrier to seniors' use of touchscreen devices. Studies have shown that 45% of seniors experience difficulty using an iPad due to cognitive limitations, and less than 50% of seniors with dementia manage to use technology independently.

Accounting for those with leathery fingertips, reduced muscular function and subjective cognitive decline, the total number of people who might experience problems with touchscreen devices is 5.6 million. When designing technology for the elderly and those who fall outside the mainstream, barriers like these must be taken into account. With communication and day-to-day tasks moving to digital platforms, a large demographic risks becoming isolated and cut off from the way the rest of society communicates.

No Isolation’s Komp is one example of technology that addresses these barriers to enable the vulnerable in our society to video call with their adult children, recieve photos of their grandchildren who live on the other side of the world, or receive appointment reminder texts from their carer. It has only one button, enabling its user to keep in touch with their family independently, without assistance and on their own terms.

For those considering buying communication technology for an elderly relative or someone in their care, these barriers of use should be taken into account before the decision is made. For technology to be truly inclusive it must be designed around the needs and limitations of its user group; we should not assume that what is second nature for one person applies universally.

Sometimes brilliance is in the simplicity with which complex problems are solved.

As the son of one Komp user recently said.